Antarctica Part VIII- Homeward Bound

The ice has grown thinner, the ship has grown boisterous with passengers, and with the exception of a few errant edits to cruise reports our scientific mission is complete.  But the journey is not over; I still have a few days in New Zealand to tell you about, and a 30 hour transit home. Plus… we celebrated Christmas on the ship!

When I first started this trip I spelled out the cast of characters on the ship (my beloved Kiwi pilots, my Italian roommate Ombretta and her ocean acidification project).  Well, the curtain has risen and fallen a few times on the passengers of the R/V Araon and it’s time for a new update. After our research cruise the R/V Araon returned to Terra Nova Bay to retrieve the scientists and crew that had overwintered there (that’s right, a year at Jang Bogo station).  We also picked up a handful of KOPRI geoscientists who had spent the Austral spring at the base (and found a stunning meteorite!) to transit them back to Christchurch as well.  The meteorite, which I feel privileged to have seen with my own eyes, is said to be the largest ever found by a Korean scientist and one of the largest in the world.  It’s retrieval is exciting news in the geoscience world – history in the making.

In addition to our Korean colleagues, however, we picked up Scottish volcanologist John Smellie (if you aren’t immediately impressed with a volcanologist in Antarctica let me remind you that this man studies volcanic eruptions underneath the ice), and a motley crew of nine geologists, biologists, zoologists and one fine soldier from Italy’s Mario Zucchelli Station,. Remember how I said the ship had become boisterous? You can imagine why.

My Italian friends and colleagues and I on the bow of the R/V Araon, departing Terra Nova Bay en route for New Zealand.

My Italian friends,  colleagues and I on the bow of the R/V Araon, departing Terra Nova Bay en route for New Zealand.

Thanks to the graciousness of documentary filmmaker/marine zoologists Roberto Palozzi I resumed my Italian lessons (grazie mille, Roberto). Thanks to the sheer charisma of Nicoletta Ademolla I now have a sincere dream to study the vocal behavior of Adelie penguins (not forgetting of course the Weddell Seals). And thanks to my friend Arnold Rakaj I will forever look out for eels in shallow freshwater streams (although he is a marine ecologist by training, studying plankton… not eels). I won’t go into the specialties and details of all of the PNRA team, but suffice it to say that I was extremely impressed with the breadth and range of their work… I’d even go so far as to say envious.  A comprehensive seal reproduction study which includes live captures and the weighing of seal pups?  Yes, I would like to be included, of course.  Oh you need a bioacoustician? I just happen to be one. I just need a few more weeks to improve my Italian.

Weddell Seal Mom and Pup.  My new favorite animal.  (Photo credit Nicoletta).

Weddell Seal Mom and Pup. My new favorite animal. (Photo credit Nicoletta).

I’ve mentioned in the past that every scientific mission is accompanied by a personal one.  When I traveled to Glacier Bay this past summer one of my primary goals was to build a relationship with the landscape and the community.  I did not have the same expectation of my time in Antarctica.  I admit I’d cast the landscape as a barren bedfellow, and anticipated my time on the ship to be filled with solitude.  I can happily admit that I was wrong. Relationships are forged in unlikely places, professionally and personally. While I thoroughly anticipated feeling scientifically awakened and inspired by the scenery, I’m pleased to report that it was in the conversations with the passengers on board the ship that I truly began to build collaborations.

But enough on the value of science and relationships… I want to tell you about Christmas.

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Amico Mio, Roberto. Cuciniamo gli spaghetti di Natale. (My Friend Roberto and I cooking Christmas spaghetti).

Christmas in Korea is celebrated largely on Christmas Eve — which was amenable to our schedule given that we were slated to arrive in Lyttelton, NZ on Christmas morning.  Christmas Eve we were treated to an early Korean Christmas dinner, complete with wine and roasted nuts for a bit of flair. Our five o’clock meal, however, was complimented by a midnight meal.  The chef onboard the R/V Araon graciously agreed to turn over his kitchen (and his pantry) for the evening so that we might make Christmas Spaghetti.  Let by Chef Roberto (though admittedly I may have tried to mutiny once or twice) we cooked three dishes, complimented by Italian cheese and salami courtesy of Mario Zucchelli Station. The evening was completed once Santa Claus himself (Kiwi Engineer Chris) made an appearance, passing out candies, and asking us all what we wanted for Christmas.

It was glorious, and festive, and fitting for our last night on the ship.

I realize that unlike previous posts that this entry lacks much sincere scientific merit.  However, one of the things that was emphasized on the ship, and throughout my training as an ecologist, is the importance of balancing work and life.  Nowhere does this seem more critical than transiting to and from the bottom of the world, where the lines are blurred.  Following Christmas we docked in Lyttelton Harbor near Christchurch, New Zealand marking the end of my journey through the Southern Ocean. Bittersweet.

Don’t fret though, fearless readers, There’s one more post before I end this story, because New Zealand was glorious.

 

Your (former) Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

 

 

Antarctica Part VII- Mission Accomplished!

I’m happy to report (I’ll be it a bit late) that the OBH (Ocean Bottom Hydrophone… for those of you just joining us) has been safely recovered! It is now snugly packed on board the R/V Araon and prepared for transport back to NOAA. Our first attempt to contact our instrument was a success (we sang to it, it sang back… how I love acoustics); however, the glorious sunshine that graced us during our recovery was unfortunately accompanied by 45-knot winds. The ship, which is large and generally stable, pitched in the wind. Our instrument is robust, but not unbreakable, and requires hoisting onto the deck via an onboard winch once it appears at the oceans surface. This translates to a lot of potential swinging – particularly in choppy seas. As usual the crew of the R/V Araon did not disappoint. They recommended a delay, and the recovery was postponed.

Brett and his "beard-cap".  Who says scientists don't have a sense of humor?

Brett and his “beard-cap”. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor?

What was not postponed, however, was our end of research cruise celebration. Despite the delay our research team was treated to a feast! Korean wine, sashimi and tempura, even chocolate cakes were served. We ate until we could not eat any more, and made merry in the mess hall until our sides split from laughing (ok, there may have been some dancing in the lounge as well, a cap with a beard knit into it, and Christmas carols). It was a glorious way to celebrate the ‘almost end of cruise’.

While the following day’s 8 AM recovery seemed early given the night’s festivities, the entire operation went off without incident. Our instrument appeared as predicted after the release command was sent, and the crew deftly maneuvered her onboard (despite another pick up in the wind). For me, the moment was one of blissful relief. This was my first large-scale recovery (of what I hope will be many). This trip was a gift and an opportunity, to successfully accomplish my mission was glorious. Further, the anticipation for seeing the instrument when she appeared from ~1000 m depth had been building for months. When it was finally placed on board I completely forgot about the lack of sleep. It was amazing. I was struck by how little bio-fouling took place (although admittedly the instrument was well beyond the photic zone), other than a thin film and what appeared to be a handful of deep water limpets.

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

By comparison, the OBS (Ocean Bottom Seismometer) recovery was significantly more dramatic.  Two OBS’s were deployed last year, both locations are currently covered in ice.  To recover our instruments the R/V Araon’s ice breaking capabilities were put into full use.  The ship was used to break, and then clear, a hole in the ice directly above where the OBS was deployed.  Nature abhors a vacuum, so as soon as the ice was cleared (which took hours) it would quickly drift back into position.  Despite this, the ship’s captain managed to clear an opening in the ice about the size of a small lake.  this required copious amounts of circular ice breaking, the ship track lines were dizzying.  The operation, however, was brilliantly executed.  The OBS was released directly into the center of the clearing (much to our relief).

Overall we successfully recovered one OBS, one OBH, deployed ~20 CTD casts (more if you consider that at times we deployed two separate instruments), and we successfully deployed to 500 m oceanographic mooring. Most of this was done in close proximity to the Drygalski Ice Tongue, which lived up in full to its reputation.

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The Drygalski Ice Tongue, just prior to the OBS recovery

 

While our team was able to ride the euphoria of a successful mission for some time, I must admit the days following the end of the cruise were hard. Brett, the Kiwi scientist from NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmosphere) joined us on the Araon for the duration of the cruise, but would not sail back with us. Similarly to our Italian colleagues Brett left via helicopter and disappeared across the ice. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that in a landscape that exists at such a large scale, that relationships here are formed so quickly. It’s a silly metaphor but I suppose this is not altogether unlike the ice  itself, which freezes quickly (pancake ice anyone?), but has the potential to stay intact for many years. In any case we returned to the mouth of Terra Nova bay and bid a rushed goodbye to our dear friend. I hope he makes it home in time for Christmas.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

As for the rest of our team? We’ll spend Christmas on the ship. We should be back in Lyttelton, New Zealand by December 27th, and will disembark shortly therafter. For now, we have a new group of Korean scientists on the ship. They have been at Jang Bogo for various durations, some only a week, others as much as a year! Additionally, we have a new group of Italian scientists from Mario Zuchelli Station who are in transit home. I’d thought my Italian lessons were over… I suppose we’ll have to see.

 

More on Christmas and the northbound transit soon!

 

Your Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

 

**Disclaimer — This post was written a few days ago… but due to lack of internet I wasn’t able to post it. Stay tuned for notes on how Christmas turned out, and what our return to New Zealand looked like**

 

 

 

 

Let the Science Begin: Antarctica Part… V?

(Warning: this is possibly a redundant post for those of you I’ve managed to email)

Another update from the bottom of the world.

We’ve departed the Jang Bogo research station with a considerably lighter ship! We unloaded countless shipping containers millions of gallons of fuel, enough food to feed a small army for years, and most of our passengers (including my favorite helicopter pilots).

We are now only seven passengers on this massive ship, with a crew of I think 35 to guide us through the Ross Sea. It is now that the actual science part of our cruise kicks in. Yesterday afternoon Jurgen (Geman geophysicist from KUM), Won Sang (KOPRI Chief scientist- geophysicist), and Sukyoung (KOPRI seismologist/environmental acoustician) and I assembled an ocean bottom seismometer (OBS) that will be deployed on the next leg of the trip (I’ll be gone by then). Today we assembled a 500m mooring that we will deploy first thing tomorrow morning. We conducted one CTD cast (to get info on the water column) at about 8pm and one more around midnight. Feeling science-y yet? Me too.

Because it’s 24 hours of daylight (bright as noon all the time) the crew is split into shifts, and if we’re willing we can do science in what should be the middle of the night, but looks just like early afternoon. We opted not to do too many middle of the night missions, but it blows my mind that we could. On board the R/V Araon we now get four meals a day. Breakfast at 7am, lunch at 11:30, dinner at 5:30 and ‘late meal’ at 10:00pm. Last night’s late meal was wonton soup in seaweed broth, and if I ever complained about the food on the ship I take it all back. It was excellent! I tried to convey my gratitude to tHe chef (one of my newest Korean friends on board the ship), but my Korean is still terrible. All I managed to say was thank you, and then bowed and smiled.

In less technical news I had one of the most amazing wildlife experiences of my life, though it will surprise you to hear that it was not with a whale but a seal! The seals here are extremely lazy, and hard to make move or even acknowledge the gigantic ship. They generally bask in the sunlight conserving energy (nice life). Because of this it’s fairly easy to walk across the ice and visit with them. Which of course we did as soon as we were able (no worries as a good ecologist I tried not to alter their behavior). Silly me forgot her camera (maybe better, the experience wasn’t about watching) but this seal was enormous! And although it didn’t move when it saw us it did something better… He began to vocalize.

Polar seals sound just like aliens (I’ve blogged about this before), it’s otherworldly. Typically they only make sounds in water but this seal starting singing/ringing/cooing on ice! It was the same type of sound I spent a year searching for when I was analyzing Arctic data but never got to see in person. To hear this kind of sound without a hydrophone, without a microphone, just to sit next to this massive seal and hear it ringing like a bell was the most amazing thing this acoustic ecologist could have possibly imagined. I nearly cried.

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I did manage to make a recording of the call, but the quality is poor. I'll try and clean it up when I come home and get it posted for all the world to hear. Needless to say now I want to study polar seal communication, and the ecology of Antarctic pinniped species.

For now a few photos of other seals will have to do, and the sound will have to follow.

Your Antarctic Correspondent,
Michelle

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Antarctica the Day After Tomorrow: Part Three

The day after tomorrow we will arrive in icy waters on the R/V Araon. It will take another few days to break through the ice and arrive at the Jang Bogo. The overarching mission of the KOPRI project is to investigate ice dynamics in the Ross Sea/ Terra Nova Bay region, with particular interest in the Drygalvski Ice Tongue. We’ve just entered Antarctic waters (we passed the 60 degree parallel late last night), and we’re getting closer.

An interlude: there is a lot of time to burn on the ship. Most people spend time working (I’m writing my dissertation proposal, and processing data for my first manuscript) but in the evenings, after our daily science meeting, we watch movies. Last night we watched “The Day After Tomorrow”. The premise of the movie is far fetched- paleoclimatologist (Dennis Quaid) predicts a catastrophic climactic shift 100-1000 years in the future and it actually takes place instantaneously in the next 48 hours. Due to the melting of Antarctica the earth’s ocean has become desalinized, the Gulf Stream has cooled, and climate goes haywire throwing us into an instantaneous ice age.

Is it possible? To the best of my scientific knowledge- no. However, there’s an interesting line in the movie when Dennis Quaid (NOAA scientist) asserts, “We know that Antarctica has been melting, but no one knows how much fresh water it puts into the ocean, or understands anything about ice dynamics!” Evidently the entire fiasco could have been avoided if we just knew more about Antarctic ice!

Well, the movie had it way off, but they got one thing close to right. We are investigating ice dynamics in Antarctica. The NOAA-Pacific Marine Environmental Lab (PMEL) is part of an integrated effort to understand just that -ice dynamics in Antarctica. The hydrophone that I’m sent to recover for PMEL (in cooperation with KOPRI) has been listening to the sound of shifting ice. If you are unaware that ice makes noise, well you have been missing one of life’s great sound effects. While I haven’t had the chance to listen to Antarctic sea ice you may remember from a previous blog post that I was part of a team that analyzed a years worth of acoustic data from the Arctic where winter sea ice abounds. The sea ice sings, wheezes, moans, cracks, and whirs. It sounds like an abiotic opera, and could easily be the character in a science fiction movie (Marvin the Martian was a Bearded seal… remember? Well, perhaps Sea Ice is his alien companion?).

But these squeaks, wheezes, and moans are more than the musical byproducts of ice- they are data. Sound can be used to infer the state of the ice, whether it is melting, moving, or quaking. In short, similar to using passive acoustic monitoring to understand ecosystem dynamics of baleen whale species, we can also use passive acoustic monitoring to understand something about polar ice dynamics. And if Dennis Quaid has taught us anything it’s that ignoring Antarctic sea ice could destroy Manhattan, this weekend (well… maybe not). More likely, understanding Antarctic ice dynamics will give us critical information linked to sea level rise and shifting climactic regimes. Not quite as sexy as destroying Manhattan- but equally as important.

Over and Out.

Your Antarctic Correspondent, Michelle

 

PS- Did I mention we passed the 60 Degree Parallel! I’m at the bottom of the world!